After reading hundreds of cruise reviews, I finally decided to pay back the favor and write one of my own. We sailed on Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines (RCI) Explorer of the Seas out of Miami on October 10, 2004, to the Western Caribbean with Belize City, Costa Maya, Cozumel, and Nassau as our ports of call. We had originally been scheduled to visit Grand Cayman, but Nassau was substituted due to the damage caused by Hurricane Ivan. Our party included myself, my fiancee, and our 3-year old daughter. We were also cruising with my parents, with whom we had an adjoining cabin. This was my fifth cruise, having previously sailed on RCI in 1998 (Monarch of the Seas), Princess in 1999 (Dawn Princess), Celebrity in 2000 (Century), and, most recently, Carnival in 2003 (Glory). We had a great time on all previous cruises, and this one was no different.
Although the Explorer of the Seas sailed on Sunday afternoon, we decided to fly down a couple days early. We arrived in Miami on Friday evening and took a taxi from the airport to the Holiday Inn - Port of Miami. We were a little surprised when the first cab driver said he wouldn't take us without a car seat (for my daughter). However, we simply moved down the line and the next driver had no problem taking us to our hotel. The ride downtown took about 15 minutes and cost $24 + tip. We selected the Holiday Inn - Port of Miami after reading several recommendations on the Cruise Critic (www.cruisecritic.com) message boards. The hotel is right across the street from the Biscayne Market and the port. I booked online a couple months out for a pre-paid rate of $83 + tax. Although I called a couple weeks out to request a room with a view of the port, when we arrived (at 8:30 pm) the desk clerk stated none were available. However, after a minute or so of checking, she smiled and said that she would just take someone else's room instead. We ended up with a top floor room overlooking the port. It was an absolutely beautiful view and we were able to see the Navigator of the Seas and a Carnival ship on Saturday and Explorer of the Seas on Sunday morning. We spent Saturday hanging out at the Market and had dinner at Bubba Gumps. The food at Bubba's was simply outstanding - as was the service. One warning for those staying at the Holiday Inn - it is also right across from Biscayne Park which has an outdoor concert stage. The speakers on the stage are pointing right at the hotel. As a result, we got to experience a dead-waking sound check at about 4 a.m. Saturday and then the actual concert from 4 pm until about midnight later on that day. I think it was louder in our room on the 10th floor than at street level. Even with that noisy problem, I would stay at the Holiday Inn - Port of Miami again in the future.
We bummed a ride to the cruise terminal with my parents, who drove down on Saturday and stayed at the hotel for one night. We arrived at the terminal around 11:00 am to find a few people still disembarking from the previous cruise. We dropped off our bags with a porter and got in a relatively small line to get into the building. I felt like we had arrived pretty early, but it turned out there were a few hundred folks already inside. The check-in went relatively smooth, although it is a bit chaotic inside since there are separate lines for both check-in and to actually get on the ship. Once you finally make it to the correct line, it is pretty easy from there. We had completed our travel documents on-line so our check-in time was simply to show birth certificates and activate our SeaPass account. We dropped off our carry-on luggage in our room and were in the Windjammer for lunch by 12:30 pm or so. Our checked luggage arrived in our room around 2:30 pm.
A lot has been written about the Explorer of the Seas and the five RCI Voyager-class ships in general, so I will not go into a bunch of detail. In a nut-shell, it was big and beautiful - by far the nicest ship on which I have cruised. We found it to be in excellent condition inside and out. Most of the food is located aft (in the back of the ship), including the 3-level dining room, the Windjammer/Island Grill buffet area, and Johnny Rockets, as are the children's facilities - Adventure Ocean and Adventure Beach. The Palace Theater and ShipShape exercise facility/spa were forward (in the front of the ship). Studio B (the ice rink) and the casino are in the center of the ship, on decks 3 and 4. Also in the center of the ship, on decks 5-8 is the spectacular Promenade. The Promenade, akin to Disney World's "main street," is an area of shops, restaurants, and bars that is fun to just walk-along on your way to or from dinner every night. Several inside staterooms on decks 6-8 have windows that look down on to the Promenade. With the exception of accessing studio B (which, from one side, had to be through the casino above), it was very easy to move throughout this ship. This is in contrast to the Carnival Glory, where we constantly had to go up or down a level to access the other side of the ship (since you had to go through the dining rooms - which were often closed). In an attempt to offset the three desserts at lunch and malts from Johnny Rockets, our family tried to use the stairs at all times (no matter how many floors up or down). On the few occasions that we used the (glass) elevators, we found them to be fast, convenient, and with a wonderful view of the Promenade.
We spent time in all three swimming areas of the ship, including the main pools, the adult Solarium, and Adventure Ocean, and found all three to be spacious and quite nice. The water in all the pools was a filtered salt water (according to one staff member) and wasn't as salty as sea water, but still bothered our daughter when she got it in her eyes. The Adventure Beach area was very nice, with a 12-inch deep "kiddie" pool (with a small metal slide), a four-foot deep "bubble" pool, and a larger "water" slide for older children. The water slide was open for four hours on sea days and a couple hours when in port. Kids under 46" tall can only slide with a parent or responsible party over that height. Our daughter just loved the water slide. It was much more tame that the one on the Carnival Glory - where I felt like I had been shot out of a submarine torpedo tube.
There were many sport activities on the Explorer of the Seas that we never found time to do, including miniature golf, rock climbing, inline skating, and ice skating.
We booked a Superior Ocean View Stateroom (#9532) with a balcony (category D1) that was located on the forward part of deck 9, port (left) side. As I mentioned before, my parents had an identical adjoining D1 cabin. For larger families traveling together, especially those with small children, the adjoining cabins are definitely the way to go. It is great being able to put the little one down for a nap or the night in one cabin, while someone else (grandma or papa in our case) is in the other cabin. You can crack the door between the two cabins in case the little one wakes up. This was also our first cruise with a balcony and, as many have said before, I will never cruise without one again. It is certainly worth the additional money. We booked early this time and paid about $850 per person for our D1 balcony cabin (plus $299 for our daughter). In the two months before the cruise, RCI was posting prices of $1150 for an inside stateroom, so I think we got a pretty good deal.
Our stateroom had somewhere around 180-200 square feet, plus the balcony. The room was laid out fairly well with a bed, sofa, desk & chair, 19" television, and large closet. Between the closet, desk drawers, and area under the bed, the room had ample storage space for three people. Overall, I think the room was pretty much the same size as our ocean view cabin on Carnival Glory and larger than our inside room on Monarch of the Seas in 1998. The bed (pushed together) was between a queen and king size and pretty comfortable. The sofa bed for our daughter was also quite large (between a double and a queen), but was quite hard and not very comfortable at all. It was fine for a small child, but an older child or adult may start hating it after a few days. The bathroom and shower were about as impressive as a bathroom and shower can be. It was pretty large, had outstanding water pressure, and provided very hot water if desired (the shower had a safety device to keep kids from turning it to the hottest setting). Shampoo was provided in a dispenser in the shower and bar soap provided as well. The shower also had a door (instead of a curtain) that did a wonderful job of keeping water in the shower (a novel idea). A hair dryer was provided in a desk drawer, but you had to hold the button down constantly to make it work.
The balcony was fairly small, but large enough to fit two chairs and a table comfortably or three chairs a bit more snug. You accessed the balcony via a large sliding glass door with a handle that was located at chest-level and fairly difficult to use (but not annoying difficult). This was nice because we knew right away our daughter would definitely not be able to wake up from a nap and get out onto the balcony by herself (if we were in the next room). We had read on other reviews or the Cruise Critic message boards to ask the stateroom attendant to open the partition between our balcony and our parents' to make one large balcony. However, after one look at the structure of our balcony, it was clear she would need a propane torch to open the partition - so we didn't even ask. When we looked up at the ship from the dock in Cozumel, it appeared many of the balconies actually had some type of removable partition, unlike the solid metal we had on both sides. We did have a great deal of privacy on the balcony and the railing was constructed with both metal and glass in such a manner that our 3-foot tall daughter could look through the glass panel just below the railing and therefore didn't have to be picked up to look over it.
Other nice features of the room included a wide selection of television channels (more than I've ever seen before), a knob that allowed you to adjust the volume on (or completely turn off) the annoying ship-wide announcements (except for emergency announcements), and an easy to use safe for storing valuables. The safe on the Carnival Glory required you to use a credit card to activate and open, whereas the one on Explorer of the Seas involved only a 4-digit code you create each time it is used. The sliding glass door and the door to the adjoining cabin both sealed remarkably well and helped our room stay very quiet - except when a gaggle of kids was running down the hall. Our only complaint about the stateroom was the refrigerator. We had brought along boxed wine, sodas, and juice boxes (checked in our luggage) to save some money on drinks. However, we found that both our refrigerator and the one in my parent's room barely cooled things below room temperature (and there was no adjustment knob). I don't know if this was simply a coincidence or RCI's way to discourage folks from bringing their own drinks. We dealt with the problem by asking our stateroom attendant (who did a fine job by the way) for a very large ice container, which she happily provided and kept full of ice.
Due to the vast amount of food we consumed (see next section below), we visited the exercise facilities (called ShipShape on deck 11 forward) almost every morning. The facility is the largest I've seen on a cruise ship and included 20 treadmills, 10 elliptical cross-trainers, a half-dozen cycling machines, a couple stair-steppers, and a wide range of weight equipment. We typically arrived there at peak time (mid-morning), but never had to wait to work out. My fiancee attended a few aerobics and/or step classes and found them to be well worth her time. There was no charge to use any of the exercise equipment or for the aerobics classes. RCI does charge $10 per class for Pilates or other specialty classes.
We had seen a number of reviews about the decreasing quality of RCI food (one person even gave it a D-minus I believe). We ate in the Windjammer buffet most mornings for breakfast, at Johnny Rockets a few times for lunch, and in the dining room every night for dinner and found the food to be consistently quite good and, in several cases, outstanding.
Breakfast in the Windjammer definitely exceeded my expectations. There was a great selection of food and it was always warm or hot. The menu was the same every day and included fruits, cereals, grits, oatmeal, scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage (pork and turkey), waffles, pancakes, fresh toast, corn beef hash, and an assortment of danishes and donuts. There was also a station with made-to-order omelettes. I particularly enjoyed the chocolate donuts, although they were hard to find at times. The Windjammer usually had 4 identical food lines going and we never had to wait in line, no matter what time we arrived. The beverage station was great and each one had a full-time attendant who pre-filled glasses of apple juice, orange juice, and ice water (lemonade, unsweetened tea and ice water at lunch). I loved this feature as all you had to do was walk up and grab a glass or two. It was certainly better than we found on Carnival and Princess where you had to wait in line with your empty glass to fill it with your drink of (limited) choice. We usually elected to sit in the farthest-most aft section of the Windjammer, where the views were the best. Although we typically had to search for a seat in this area, we usually found one within 30 seconds or so. Lunch in the Windjammer was also good, though not to the level of breakfast. The pizza was good (cheese or pepperoni), although the selection and taste did not come close to matching that found in the 24-hour pizzeria on the Carnival Glory.
If we were not eating pizza for lunch, you could usually find us at Johnny Rockets. We usually ate there due to its proximity to Adventure Ocean, where we were typically hanging out with our daughter. We found the main food at Johnny Rockets, such as burgers, chicken, grilled cheese, grilled ham & cheese, and French fries to be good, but certainly nothing spectacular. The onion rings and malts were a different story, however. Both were outstanding. We could have lived the who week on malts and onion rings at JR's. At the time of our cruise, the food was free, but the malts were $3.60 + gratuity. Our understanding is that RCI will soon be instituting a $4 or so cover charge on each order at Johnny Rockets. This supposedly will be to control the long lines, but in reality we never waited more than 20-30 minutes for our takeout order at Johnny Rockets.
Now to save the best for last. We ate dinner in the main dining room each and every night. We had table #451 in the DaGama dining room, a table for eight overlooking the lower level (including the Captain's table and main stairway). Our tablemates were a very nice couple from Colorado and their 12-year old son. They were at dinner with us every night and we had some great conversation. Meeting and spending time with them turned out to be one of the highlights of our cruise. It was bit disappointing at times to look around at dinner and see tables of eight or ten with only two people sitting there. Regarding the food in the dining room, we found it to be very good to excellent. I had some wonderful entrees, including chicken, rack of lamb, salmon, mahi mahi, 4-cheese ravioli, lobster & shrimp, and veal parmesan, as well as a number of great appetizers and desserts. As on previous cruises, we had great service in the dining room. Both our waiter and assistant waiter were funny and seemed happy to be there. For the first time ever, we actually saw the head waiter on a routine basis. He frequently came by the table and checked on the group in general, but especially our daughter. Several times during the cruise, someone at the table would order something not on the menu (e.g. margarine instead of butter on the escargot, broiled fish instead of fried) and the answer was always the same - no problem at all. The dining room staff had singing and/or dancing performances on three or four of the evenings - which our daughter absolutely loved. We often had folks coming over to our table to take photos of the festivities since our table overlooked the grand staircase.
Like the food, everyone in our party found the entertainment to be very good. James Andrews was our Cruise Director, and we found him to be quite likeable - certainly on par with other CDs we have seen in the past. The Explorer of the Seas has the usual two production shows, with the RCI singers and dancers. Although the dancers were all typical of cruise line dancers, we found the four singers to be outstanding. In addition to the two production shows, the RCI singers/dancers we also part of the show on the first and last night of the cruise. My parents saw The Coasters and thought they were quite good as well. In my opinion, the entertainment highlight was probably "Oscar Silvera - The Southern American Cowboy El Gaucho," who was the headline act on Day 2. We thought it sounded cheesy and almost skipped it - but he was hysterical and very entertaining. Kudos to RCI for booking this guy. Regarding the Palace Theater, it has good sight lines and is large enough to get a good seat even if you arrive only a few minutes before the show. My only complaint was that the seat backs were too high for our daughter to see over - even if she was sitting in my lap.
Our daughter participated in the Aquanauts program (3-5 year olds) for 2-3 hours each day and seemed to really enjoy it. There were activities planned every half-hour, so there was plenty for the kids to do. One night they had all the kids dress-up like pirates and had a parade through the Promenade and dining room. The staff was great and did a very good job with the kids. They also seemed very relaxed, which differs from the staff on the Carnival Glory - who were a bit more uptight about the children's behavior. But then again, the Carnival staff has to deal with 2-year olds, so I guess I would be more uptight if I worked there too. Pagers are issued to the parents of all Aquanauts. This was much more convenient than on the Carnival Glory, where parents were asked to call Camp Carnival every half-hour or so to check on your child.
A couple interesting things about the Adventure Ocean program. During the sign-up on the first night, one lady was trying to enroll her daughter who was 2-years and 11-months old. She stated her daughter could "walk, talk, and had been potty trained for a year," so she should be allowed in the program. However, the Adventure Ocean staff had a list of all eligible children and stated it was RCI's policy that they must be three to participate. Another thing was that RCI states all Adventure Ocean staff have a four-year degree in Early Childhood Education or a related field. We found that not to be entirely true, as only one of the staffers we dealt with had this type of degree. The others had degrees in business and political science, but did have some experience working with kids. Regardless of their backgrounds, we felt they did a good job with the children.
Ports of Call
As mentioned before, our cruise did a Western Caribbean itinerary, with stops in Belize City, Costa Maya & Cozumel, Mexico, and Nassau, Bahamas. The first stop was in Belize City, where we had to tender into the port. The guide on our excursion that day indicated the waters are only ten-feet deep or so along the coast, so ships have to stay pretty far out. We used a local tender service and not the ship's lifeboats as we had seen in the past. The area around the port seemed to be pretty small. We took the ship's "Shark Ray Alley Snorkel & Beach with Lunch" excursion for low, low price of $92 per person. This trip lasted about 6½ hours and started with a 1-hour speed boat ride up the coast toward Mexico. We stopped once to sign waiver forms, use the restroom, and pick-up some shark bait. A few minutes later, we were at Shark Ray Alley. For those folks who have been to Stingray City in Grand Cayman, this area is very similar - with lots of boats and many snorkelers in a very small area. The main difference being there were a couple of nurse sharks, more fish, and only a few stingrays. They threw the shark bait in upon arrival which brought two or three sharks next to the boat. However, our guide said we should get a good look at the sharks from the boat, because they don't like people and tend to swim away as soon as we get into the water - which was the case. We snorkeled for about 90 minutes, playing follow-the-leader with our guide, during which time we were constantly running into our fellow snorkelers. Once back in the boat, we took a short ride to a small beach for a buffet lunch. The food here was fair at best, with baked chicken, rice and beans, tortilla shells, and watermelon being the main lunch items We decided that eating potato salad from a buffet sitting on a hot beach in Belize was not a particularly good idea, so we skipped it. After lunch, we had 60 minutes to sit on the beach. However, due to the amount of vegetation in the water, you couldn't swim, so we just laid on the beach and relaxed (and were eaten alive by mosquitoes). All in all, it was a pretty good excursion, but probably not worth $184 for the two of us (especially considering that would have bought 46 malts at Johnny Rockets).
It rained all day in Costa Maya, so we walked into the cruise port for a bit of shopping, but otherwise hung out on the mostly-empty ship (which was great). The port here is quite new and pretty nice, with a bunch of shops and a saltwater swimming pool with a swim-up bar. Our dinner table-mates took a half-day Mayan ruins tour through RCI and seemed to enjoy it.
Our day in Cozumel started out with heavy rain which passed once we were done working out in the ShipShape center and was followed by bright sunshine. Again, after recommendations from the Cruise Critic message boards, our whole group took a taxi to Paradise Beach. Since we were at the international pier, the trip took only about 10 minutes and had a pre-set and posted cost of $12 per taxi (not per person). Paradise beach was beautiful and there was no charge for entry into the beach area, nor for the use of the lounge chairs and umbrellas. If you wanted to use the snorkeling equipment, kayaks, water trampoline, and inflatable iceberg, there was a charge of $5 per person (free if under age 5). My fiancee and I also elected to rent a waverunner for 15 minutes ($30) and had a blast. The beach had a pretty good menu and the wait staff would come out to your lounge chair to take your order and deliver your food. I highly recommend this beach and will return the next time we're in Cozumel.
Since our visit to Nassau was on our last day, we stayed on the ship and relaxed. My parents went in to shop a bit and said the shops were packed - which is not unexpected since there were four 70,000-ton + cruise ships in port that day.
We had an 11:00 a.m. flight back to the Carolinas, so we were a little worried about having enough time to make our flight. We filled out the appropriate forms and were automatically given the white "Early Debarkation" tags, since our flight left prior to 11:30 am. Our color was called at about 7:10 a.m., and by 8:20 a.m. we had gone through a humorless Customs/Immigration officer, picked-up our luggage, found my parents' car in the parking deck, and made it to the airport. Our 11 a.m. flight had been cancelled (unbeknownst to us), so US Airways got us on the 9:15 am flight instead. While the whole debarkation process was certainly not fun, it was efficient, and got us to the airport in what has to be record time.
General Observations & Recommendations
I'm not sure if it was the size of the ship, the (generally) good weather, or the fact that it was a western Caribbean cruise (away from the Atlantic Ocean), but this was the smoothest cruise I have ever been on. We noticed almost no ship motion the entire week. We normally take Bonine each day as a preventative for motion sickness, but this cruise we pretty much stopped after day 1.
Based on a Cruise Critic board recommendation, we brought along an over-the-door shoe holder for our stateroom. We attached it to the bathroom door and used to it store things that normally get lost in the room (Sea Pass cards, receipts, excursion tickets, sunglasses, etc.).
If you get off the ship in Belize, remember to bring bug spray. I'm still hoping we don't come down with Malaria.
In summary, we had a wonderful time on RCI's Explorer of the Seas and have already booked a Southern Caribbean cruise on the Adventure of the Seas for next fall ($100 per stateroom credit when booked on board). Now the only problem is waiting.
Feel free to E-mail us if you have any questions: firstname.lastname@example.org